Balance training in the physical preparation of athletes. Part 1.

Updated: Nov 15, 2020

Our understanding of the strengthening of muscle in terms of injury prevention and athletic performance is reasonably advanced however the role of balance training is perhaps less understood. There are also many misconceptions about what balance actually training is. This series of blog posts will focus on the role balance training plays in the physical preparation of athletes and draws on my MPhil research from Auckland University of Technology with Professor John Cronin and Dr. James Croft.

Balance /ˈbal(ə)ns/

Noun: An even distribution of weight enabling someone or something to remain upright and steady.

Verb: Put (something) in a steady position so that it does not fall.

Static and Dynamic Balance

For the human body to maintain upright stance and not fall it must manipulate its centre of mass (COM) relative to its base of support (BOS). The ability to achieve stability in this respect is termed balance. Balance tasks can be described as either 'static' or 'dynamic' depending on several factors. Static balance typically involves stances during which movement is discouraged, such as standing still on one leg. Whereas dynamic balance typically requires the athlete to maintain an upright stance whilst performing a motor task such as a squat or sprinting.

During static balance tasks the athlete will work to keep their COM over their BOS throughout the exercise. A failure to do so will result in a loss of balance via a step or a fall. During dynamic balance tasks an athlete may choose to manipulate their COM outside of their BOS for a performance advantage. For example when sprinting or changing direction an athlete can place their BOS in front, to the side or behind their COM for different benefits whilst still maintaining balance. More skilled performers are able to do this to a greater extent.

Occasionally an athlete may also choose to sacrifice balance for the purposes of orientation such as aligning body segments to make a catch which results in a fall. In other situations, an athlete may be prevented from making a play because they are primarily involved with maintaining balance. Sometimes these tasks are constrained by an opponent, the requirement to stay on the field, fatigue, the magnitude of the forces and velocities involved as well as numerous other factors. These are of course some of the reasons why balance training is important.

It is probably clear that when considering balance in sport we are primarily concerned with dynamic balance and as a result balance should not be considered solely as the ability to maintain upright stance in static exercises like a single leg stand. As will be discussed in later posts, only training static balance may not provide the greatest benefits.

Whether balance is achieved or not, the orientation of body segments is governed by the postural control system and this process requires the integration of multiple processes, namely sensory information from visual, vestibular and proprioceptive systems to assess the position and motion of the body in space followed by the generation of appropriate forces to control body kinematics.

In Part 2. We will look more at how the postural control system works and cover the three primary strategies the body uses to maintain balance.

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